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Colouring Outside the Lines

Posted on 12/14/10 19 Comments

Yesterday I finished the last of 4 days teaching foundation handling workshops. A great group of enthusiastic students with a varied range of experience. Some handlers brand new to agility while others were coming back for a refresher after a year or so of trialing with their young dogs. However most of the 14 dogs were adolescents just taking their first hops in the world of sequencing obstacles. I love to be a part of those “firsts.”

There were a few dogs that needed more focus on ground work and building value for their humans. Perhaps a bit premature to try to sequence jumps at this point. I am talking about dogs that would leave work to run off and search for cookies or chase another dog. Funny enough, all of these dogs had amazing Crate Games. They would leave their owners in a dead gallop at the first suggestion of finding their crate. For this group, the homework was to now turn this value around. Clearly they had the talent to build great value for the crate –so I anticipate they will have the same success turning things around and getting value for them and their work.

So the plan is to use the concepts of Stages 1-3 of Crate Games, but rather than building value for a crate, they will be building value for their owners. “You’re Out- You’re In” may become– be released from your owner and see if the dog once again will seek their owner?

When you are putting together the building blocks of your future agility dog you are either building value for something or adding complexity to something you feel the dog already knows.  For example the value building of One Jump Work evolves into the complexity Greg Derrett’s Double Box Work and beyond.

For many handlers with young dogs the dilemma of knowing WHEN it is time to move from value building to value testing (or adding complexity) is the big question. If you make this move too early you run the risk of over facing the young dog and running into issues such as; the dog shutting down, sniffing, getting the zoomies etc. Wait too long and you not only waste your valuable training time but you also may find it more difficult to push forward later on.  For example; if you work a rear cross on one jump for months without ever trying to sequence the manuever with another jump you run the risk of a dog not looking to drive on to other obstacles after you perform any future rear cross.

With most owners of the young dogs in attendance this past weekend the message I tried to share was to “allow the young dog to colour outside of the lines.” I recognize that the Say Yes program is filled with tons of details. With so many details it is easy to aim for perfection. So even if you have been building value effectively and adding complexity appropriately; with the unattainable quest for perfection of details on your agenda –you run the risk of sucking the drive out of even the most eager young dog.

Hence my advise to allow these young dogs the freedom to “colour outside the lines.” Don’t freak out if the youngster runs around a jump or cuts behind your back while he is learning how to follow your body in handling. Certainly don’t reward it — but neither should it be “punished.” The lack of reinforcement coupled with massive amounts of appropriately applied high value reinforcement when he gets it right is all the feedback your young dogs needs to move forward with confidence and enthusiasm.

Take a deep breath (and some high valued vegan chocolate chip cookies where necessary) to help you overcome the need to see perfection in the narrowing eyes of your promising young upstart that is staring back at you from the start line with his butt hairs slowly lifting out of your previously perfected start line stay in crazed anticipation of your magical release word.

Enjoy the journey my friends:).

Today I am grateful for the opportunity to teach.  Twenty one years and counting since I taught my first dog training class. I still consider it a privilege, it has never lost its appeal for me; I suspect it never will.


  1. Gale says:
    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 9:25pm

    I wish I lived closer, but I have a question:

    I can’t believe my puppy is only 8 months old… It seems like I have had her for much longer and she has learned so much… I am amazed when I take inventory.


    Because of the drive created by the crate games, that monster of mine jumps up on me before sitting. Does anyone else have this problem?

    When she does jump on me after a recall, I don’t reward or say anything except “we are going to do this again” and when I do, she runs to where the crate I used for the games used to be and sits there, waiting for me to call her.

    I haven’t done many of the recallers lessons with her because of a silent heart attack, but when I get my package, I am going to work on it with her and the other dogs.


  2. Wendy says:
    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 11:04pm

    I am wondering how to work this into my current question about speed. I have a very willing dog, and I am pretty good about high reinforcement and providing value, so she’s a very willing worker. We just did our first trial last week, and did very well, Q’ing in all four events. However, watching the videos, I realized that we’re not very fast. We don’t stop and trot, but it’s a steady, happy lope the whole time.

    Of course, we’ve been focusing on learning the fundamentals, and I’m very pleased with how well we’re doing. But I also realize that if we don’t speed up, we won’t do very well as we move up.

    How much of speed is related to initial, how much is related to genetic ability, and how much can be influenced after the fundamentals are learned? I know from watching 2×2 training and running dogwalk/A-frame that speed should be part of the early training. What if you didn’t do that? How do you speed them up afterwards, or is it already too late?

    Thanks for all your inspiration and sharing.


  3. mtrebino says:
    Tuesday, December 21, 2010 at 6:13pm

    Oh boy was I meant to be on the compt and your blog today..This is just where I am with Jewel..She tears to the crate when I say the word but I still don’t have that ok mom whats next attitude that my bc has..margie


  4. Casey says:
    Friday, December 17, 2010 at 5:13pm

    I understand letting the young dog make mistakes and not reinforcing the mistake. Rather really reinforce doing what is right. So in general, does this mean if the dog goes around the jump, just continuing on. I have been correcting the error there, and my 3 year old lab is getting too careful. What I am understanding is that I should likely finish the sequence, THEN come back and do the mistake section again, and highly reward. Correct?


  5. Tracy Sklenar says:
    Wednesday, December 15, 2010 at 11:56am

    That’s the best part of flatwork and double box… having a laugh as the dogs color outside the lines, then balancing that in your training to over time enjoy some great artwork.

    When Export was a youngster, he did lots of coloring outside the lines in double boxes and such – wow, I learned a lot! Matrix, my current youngster, had different concepts of how the drawing should be – definitely a reflection of what I had emphasized earlier in her foundation – and what I had improved on with myself as a trainer/handler (and what I’m still coloring outside the lines on 🙂

    Gotta say, though, that while I unfortunately couldn’t come to camp this weekend with Matrix (I was working), I did get some double box in with her… terrifying, I say, terrifying! She is just about 16″ tall, yet the Say Yes foundation has given her enough passion and understanding that she can bounce a lot of the distances in the box and I have to do a lot of flat out running to get the handling done. It is a great kind of terrifying!

    Tracy and the beasties in snowy New York


  6. mary m says:
    Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 6:23pm

    The two days of working my young one were a blast, they showed me some great progress her and I have made over the last year and showed some “big &%$ holes”….I had to repeat this quote, made me laugh! – Now to get to those holes and improve what I have in front of me 😉

    Thanks for working with us all Susan, what is so ingrained and comes easy for you with dogs is still a learning curve for most of us, I for one am honored to be able to work with you now and again, and my dogs are better for it!



  7. Clyde says:
    Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 4:31pm

    The release BREAK means find the value. When you release your dogs at the front door after they have sat after you have reached for the door knob, what cue should you use to release them to go outside, say for poddy? If you use BREAK, should they not turn back and come to you (like you’re out your in)? Should you use GO PODDY or some other cue other than BREAK?


    • Susan says:
      Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 6:22pm

      @Clyde “Break” does mean “find the value” but when I release you from the back door the value will be out in the yard not with me (unless I happen to be going out into the yard with the dogs). When I want the dogs to stay close when I release them at the back door i use the release “with me.”


      • Clyde says:
        Wednesday, December 15, 2010 at 12:58pm

        I understand. But normally, the value is with you. “Nothing should be more reinforcing than interacting with you”. So in the spirit of this post, which is trying to duplicate the value that the dogs have for their crate to having with you, if I release my dog, I want her to trot out a little ways and then look back to me for permission. When I give a release, my dog “checks out”. I want her to stay connected even though she is not under stimulus control.

  8. Michelle says:
    Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 1:57pm

    Great post. I have seen some students so vigilent on doing everything right that they forget about the dog. The persons execution was perfect but they drilled the dog adnauseum. And after awhile these dogs just gave up, very very sad to see.

    We have to remember that these are dogs and to have fun, let them sparkle and show their individuality too, they are not clones of Encore and Feature (I wish !!!)

    I also wonder if doing the same kind of training can get tiresome on a dog, like if all you do is box work all the time, wouldnt a dog start to loose interest. Talking as a non BC owner where variety seems to spice things up.


  9. Cathy says:
    Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 1:57pm

    Boy, what timing, I am also working Success with One Jump with my 18 mo BC. My favorite quote from the DVD is “Guys, you’re accepting too much C.R.A.P.!!!” Now I will add “allow the young dog to color outside the lines”. It’s all about the balance between the two and mostly enjoying the journey!!


  10. Jodi Altman says:
    Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 1:05pm

    It was an absolute honour to watch close friends work through their struggles and joys with their young dogs this week at SY. Having never being a perfectionist and recognizing that repetition in artmaking is painful, this “colouring” concept is close to my heart. Though I did observe that allowing unwanted behaviours, even once with my youngster, would create masses amount of heart-ache for me later on, I knew I had to be selective about which ones were important to stay coloured “within the lines”. There seems to be a fine line between being consistent in your training and discovering your own language of love and respect which seems to reflect back at you when, at the start line, you look back at your best friend.


  11. Christine says:
    Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 12:21pm

    What a timely post. I did a double box session with my 15mo over the wkend. I wasn’t sure if she was ready and was pleasantly surprised by her understanding of so many of the skills. Yes she went around some jumps and gasp did try to blind cross me at one point, but each time I set her up to try it again she was happy to do it. It gave me a good idea of what I need to work on next.


  12. Karey says:
    Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 10:45am

    It always comes back to balance :-).
    Reason and I learning to colour outside the lines :-). I’m so enjoying the journey!!!!

    I hope you never give up teaching. Thanks for another great camp…..just loved it!!!!!!


  13. LINDA BLACK says:
    Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 10:31am

    Dang you are good!!! Just started building value for one jump yesterday and am already caught up in too much or too little enthusiasm…trying to not repeat previous mistakes, but keep what I like….I will remember to allow colouring outside the lines, but not off the page!!!


  14. Anne says:
    Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 7:52am

    Thanks for this post. “Coloring outside the lines” is a great image to keep in mind. With Tai at 11 months that is happening a lot!


  15. Karen M says:
    Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 4:14am

    A comment from my herding instructor on the weekend “Never punish a dog for being keen (on stock).” That thought will stay with me in all my dog training.


  16. Debbie Middlemiss says:
    Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 1:43am

    Such an apt post, last night was the first night I introduced sequences in my training class, the dogs did exactly that, chased other dogs, ran away, barked, demonstrated their recalls weren’t perfect, the perfect ones were the slow ones! They were all colouring outside the lines. 🙂
    I gave them all the web address to your blog so it will be very interesting to listen to their feedback.
    For me I too won’t stress too much when my dog colours outside the lines. 🙂
    Love this post, thanks. Debbie M


  17. denise says:
    Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 1:14am

    Hope teaching never loses its appeal to you…. you’ve got so much to give and I want as much of it as I can get 🙂


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